Taking Back the Boulevard

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Author: Anne Ewbank

Crossing Colorado Boulevard can be alarmingly similar to playing Frogger. Pedestrians hurry across the street to avoid being flattened by cars racing above the speed limit. Bicyclists, without the safe confines of bike lanes, navigate the road with a heightened sense of vulnerability.

Colorado Boulevard, particularly around its intersection with Eagle Rock Boulevard, is characterized by narrow sidewalks, a lack of safe pedestrian crossing locations and sparse trees. Although the community of Eagle Rock prides itself on its small town past, the city that has grown up around the original 1911 settlement has made Colorado less of a main street and more of an expressway.

The hazards of the street have prompted a recent community initiative that promises to convert the cracked pavement and speeding traffic into a greener, pedestrian-friendly main street for the citizens of the Eagle Rock community. Known as Take Back the Boulevard, the initiative is spearheaded by community groups, local activists, the office of Councilman Jose Huizar, Occidental’s Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (U.E.P.I.), and businesses and property owners on Colorado.

Like other Los Angeles neighborhoods working to accommodate the substantial growth of their communities, Eagle Rock is looking to the future and the latest in urban planning to design a Colorado Boulevard that is safe and prosperous.

On Sept. 21, the Take Back the Boulevard Steering Committee held a public community meeting for residents to discuss how to make the street a more hospitable place. The first question raised at the meeting was a given—from what, exactly, is Eagle Rock taking the Boulevard “back?” Soon the answer was clear: the cars racing through Colorado are the enemy that the community hopes to eradicate. By defeating this enemy, the project will transform the Boulevard from a high-traffic artery for zooming cars to a thriving area for business and a safe gathering place.  

Colorado Boulevard runs all the way from western Glendale to eastern Pasadena, but it is best known to Occidental students as the center of Eagle Rock’s “downtown.” Most students know and enjoy the businesses that line both sides of Colorado Boulevard, but the issues that make Colorado an inadequate main street for Eagle Rock are as glaring as the Vitaminwater billboard that hovers over the Colorado and Eagle Rock intersection.

Avid student cyclist Marah Bragdon (junior) expressed her dissatisfaction with the condition of Colorado Boulevard for travelers on two wheels. “Biking around Eagle Rock in general and on Colorado Boulevard can be a little scary because you either have to bike on the sidewalk, where there are people, uneven surfaces and poles, or bike on the road with little extra space between you and the cars,” she said.

At the town meeting on Sept. 21, Jeff Jacobberger, a consultant for the real estate development company Civic Enterprise Associates, presented concepts that could make the street more people-friendly, including narrowing the lanes, accommodating bicyclists and increasing green, sustainable practices in the neighborhood.

Narrowing the Boulevard

As it exists today, Colorado Boulevard consists of three lanes of traffic in both directions, with on-street parking and a traffic-separating median. The speed limit is 35 miles per hour, but it is often ignored as drivers take advantage of the long stretch of road with sparse pedestrians and spread-out stoplights. Noisy and dangerous, the street is hard to navigate without a car. Being a pedestrian or bicyclist on Colorado Boulevard is a nerve-wracking experience, and most of the people who visit Eagle Rock do so on four wheels.

Adding to the problem is that the road is 100 feet wide, so it can take a long time to cross from one side to the other. It isn’t hard to imagine a careless or impatient driver accidentally striking someone like a child or older person who takes longer to cross.

Take Back the Boulevard has proposed a series of changes that would narrow the width of the street and slow down cars driving on Colorado. Chief among these is a plan to create a separate bike lane the same width of the car lanes, the first of its kind in Los Angeles. The  portion of the street designated for motor vehicles would be narrower, and bicyclists would receive their own space rather than sharing with cars. This would not require an expensive roadwork project, just road painting and signage.

Other alterations proposed for the Boulevard are bulb-outs and bus-only lanes. Bulb-outs are sections of sidewalk that extend farther into the street, narrowing the road and affording pedestrians a clearer view of oncoming traffic. A bus-only lane that would operate during rush hours would considerably increase the efficiency of bus routes. Bus-only lanes are often used in large cities for this very purpose, the first of which appeared in bustling Chicago in 1939.

The Take Back the Boulevard plan could also introduce reverse diagonal parking, which would jut out into the street and induce motorists to park at an angle to the sidewalk. The front of the parked cars would face the street.

 

Reverse diagonal parking sounds like a pain, but Jacobberger assured the attendees of the meeting that it would increase safety for those climbing into their cars by slowing down traffic as people parked and also make it easier to leave a parking place.

Corey Wilton, who co-owns Four Café on Colorado Boulevard with his wife, Michelle Wilton, said he is enthusiastic about the reconfigured parking setup.  “I like the idea of reverse diagonal parking,” he said.

Narrowing Colorado would have a pronounced impact on how cars can use the Boulevard, fulfilling the statement in Take Back the Boulevard’s mission to increase safety, increase the support of local businesses and “stimulate economic growth through greater pedestrian activity and reduced automobile speeds.”

Business on the Boulevard

Business owners along the street are excited about the possibilities of the initiative.

Wilton said he hopes the project will help Eagle Rock develop an identity as a unique neighborhood within Los Angeles. “I moved here from Encinitas, and that city really branded itself,” he said. “It’s really amazing now. If Eagle Rock could have a local artist come in and do something that set this place apart, that would make me really happy.”

He also hopes the project will raise the maximum allowable time per parking meter on Colorado from one hour to two or three hours. “It would be really be great if the parking meter times were standardized and increased. When you go to a restaurant, you can’t relax and enjoy your meal if you’re worried about the hour you have in the meter,” he said.

Wilton admits to being somewhat nervous about the changes to the street but remains hopeful. “I feel like Take Back the Boulevard would help the businesses along Colorado immensely, but the outcome is really unknown. We would like to see a lot more businesses along here, and I think that will happen. I’m happy there’s so much passion for this in the c
ommunity,” he said.

Increased Biking Resources

Traveling by bike in Los Angeles can require the fortitude of an extreme sports athlete due to the sheer size of the city and the all-too-accurate stereotype of Los Angeles as a city on four wheels. But biking is finally having its day in L.A. Evidence of this can be seen in the recent success of CicLAvia, a biannual event that takes some of Los Angeles’ most famous thoroughfares and clears them of cars for bicyclists to race down in proprietary glee.

The impact of increased interest in biking can observed, locally, on York Boulevard, where a small biking community exists in the form of a bike store, brand new bike lanes and a bike rack with ten slots occupying a parking space in front of Café de Leche at York and Ave. 50.

Colorado Boulevard, by contrast, has no bike lanes, but Take Back the Boulevard proposes to make Colorado more bike-friendly by converting one lane of traffic into a bike lane.

One vocal subset of Eagle Rock’s biking community attended the meeting and would like to see bike lanes separated by a physical barrier or have the bike lane in the middle of the Boulevard where the median exists today. Accommodating bicyclists would encourage more of them to use Colorado and lessen the current density of automobile traffic.

Bragdon said that introducing bike lanes to Eagle Rock thoroughfares would make cycling around the neighborhood easier and less dangerous.

“Bike lanes would be extremely useful. While there are currently some bike lanes on Eagle Rock Boulevard, they are very short and located in a portion of the road that cars cross,” she said.

At the community meeting it was announced that the Los Angeles Department of Transportation is exploring the possibility of bikes lanes for Colorado Boulevard, but no definite plans are yet in the works. Following the 2010 enactment of the Los Angeles Bicycle Plan, which will add hundreds of miles of bike lanes and increase bike facilities throughout the city over the next five years, this initiative seems very appropriately timed.

Greening the Boulevard

At the Sept. 21 community meeting, several proposals were suggested by the leaders of the initiative and community members alike. One proposal was to plant more trees to make walking down Colorado more comfortable and inviting.

“Trees provide a psychological break between the pedestrian and traffic. Also, they act as a signal to motorists that what they’re driving on is not freeway, so they shouldn’t speed as much,” Jacobberger said.

Since narrowing the Boulevard is one of the main goals of the initiative, one cost-effective option is to construct parklets, or lanes of traffic repurposed as space for people to sit or hang out. These parklets would be protected by large planters filled with flowers or greenery to add a more natural feel to the Boulevard. Another part of the proposed plan is a storm-water management project that would take water runoff from the street to clean and recycle it.

The Funding

“This plan is self-initiated in Eagle Rock by dedicated community activists,” Huizar said at the meeting.

Although such community spirit is admirable, it does mean that the Take Back the Boulevard initiative hasn’t been guaranteed funding from any source. Roadwork is very expensive—shifting sidewalks or removing medians are projects that run into the millions of dollars.

Paying for Take Back the Boulevard may be difficult, but the community plans on utilizing money that the City of Los Angeles allots for beautification and neighborhood projects to help. The Take Back the Boulevard steering committee does not know how much money the city will give them, but it is certain not to be enough.

Allan Compton, of SALT Landscape Architects Studio and a member of the steering committee, said that the initiative plans on applying for grant money from organizations with streetscaping and green goals, citing the National Center for Safe Routes to School and the L.A. Metro as two possible providers of funding. “We need to figure out the grant cycle first before making any definite statements about where our funding will come from,” Compton said.

Emphasis will be placed at first on relatively inexpensive changes like painting bike lanes and installing planters.

Take Back the Boulevard is certainly a long term project, with plans to break ground in the distant future. The next public planning meeting will take place in early 2012, and Compton estimates that a definite plan may emerge by the middle of next year.  “We want to spend a good deal of time talking with the community. Our first meeting was to begin the conversation in the terms of urban design language. We are in the early stages, and we want to gather preliminary thoughts,” he said. Chloe Ziegler, a community activist with Collaborative Eagle Rock Beautiful and another member of the Take Back the Boulevard steering committee, is cautious about assigning a date to the first improvements to Colorado Boulevard. “I think it will be three to four years,” she said. “But the important thing is that it’s done right.”

Ziegler offered a vision on how she would like the street to look. “We definitely do not want Old Town Pasadena,” she said. “We do want to make the street more pedestrian and a place for community, if that’s not too utopian. But what makes Eagle Rock special is the idiosyncrasies. I like having a car repair place on the same street as a fancy coffee house and a stained glass store. It would be a tragedy if it was all replaced with Banana Republic and GAPs. If this place was gentrified to that extent, I would be very sad.”

Occidental and the Boulevard

Occidental’s involement in the Take Back the Boulevard initiative is crucial to the project’s success.

“Occidental College is something the town of Eagle Rock takes pride in,” Ziegler said. “It would be great to see more students taking an active interest in the future of these streets. There are so many college towns with great energy, and it’s possible that Eagle Rock could become one of those too.”

U.E.P. Professor Mark Vallianatos said that although Eagle Rock Boulevard and York Boulevard may be closer to Occidental’s campus than Colorado, Take Back the Boulevard is a great opportunity for Occidental students to get involved in the surrounding neighborhood.

“They’re built-in constituents. Any changes to the street will affect students here at Oxy,” Vallianatos said.

With this in mind, the professor has enlisted a team of students to assist with t
he project. Students enrolled in Vallianatos’s “Transportation and Living Streets” class will be taking traffic counts to measure the flow of traffic and the number of bicyclists who use Colorado.

“This is a moment of increasing potential for change. Improving streets, the new bike plan, traffic calming: we’re better positioned than ever to make these changes,” Vallianatos said. “Janette Sadik-Khan, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, is now on the Occidental Board of Trustees. Obviously this is something that the school is interested in.”

It’s very clear that Take Back the Boulevard is a long-term project. Standing in the way are financial constraints and the bureaucracy that accompanies any public project of this scale. If the project succeeds, it will be a triumph for Eagle Rock and its dedicated community members. The work done through Take Back the Boulevard may potentially act as an example for other urban neighborhoods dealing with traffic-clogged roads and withering main streets. Eagle Rock will never again be the small town it originally was in the early 1900s.  Alterations to Colorado Boulevard, however, will help reaffirm Eagle Rock as a calm oasis distinct from hectic Los Angeles, appreciated by all who inhabit and visit the area.

For more information on “Take Back the Boulevard” and upcoming community meetings, visit http://www.takebacktheblvd.org/.

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